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Company's mesh will help troops beat 'Baghdad boils'

A Bradenton entrepreneur is scrambling to fill an Army order for 240,000 fine-mesh tents to keep desert sand flies at bay.

KRIS HUNDLEY
Published June 9, 2004

BRADENTON - David Ways spent the last 15 months trying to convince the Department of Defense it needed to buy his lightweight, fine-mesh mosquito netting for U.S. troops in Iraq.

Now the Army has given Ways' Bradenton company, Skeeta Inc. until the end of August to provide 240,000 of the nets as part of a contract worth $7.1-million. And Ways, a 40-year-old architect who runs Skeeta out of his home in Lakewood Ranch, is racing to meet the deadline.

"It's wonderful to be able to help out our soldiers in some way," said Ways, whose biggest previous order was for a few hundred tents. "But right now, it's hard to think about anything other than what we need to do to make it happen."

There's a particular sense of urgency since the military is seeing an increasing number of soldiers in Iraq suffering from festering skin lesions called "Baghdad boils."

The sores are caused by a parasite known as cutaneous leishmaniasis, which is transmitted by the bite of some species of sand flies. Iraq and Afghanistan are two prime breeding grounds for such flies; the bites can take weeks or even months to appear as sores.

Though the sores are not contagious and are not necessarily painful, if untreated they can leave permanent, burn-like scars.

So far, more than 650 soldiers have been treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington for leishmaniasis. A second treatment center opened in the spring at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. The most serious cases receive a drug called Pentostam intravenously for 10 to 20 days. Milder cases can be treated with liquid nitrogen.

The military is trying to fight this particular battlefield scourge by preaching prevention. This is where Skeeta's nets come into play: to provide better protection for soldiers while they sleep.

"The Army's traditional mosquito nets have a bigger, heavier mesh that sand flies can go right through," said Ways. "Our mesh is easily 20 times as fine and it's lightweight and can be folded up into a pouch."

The Army's order is for a net that can be used over cots or serve as a one-person tent. The average price per tent under Skeeta's contract is about $30.

Ways started his business 13 years ago after he moved to Alaska to try his hand at gold mining. He asked his mother to make a jacket and pants out of fine-mesh netting to protect him from pesky mosquitoes and no-see-ums. The designs were soon a hit with other woodsmen. The state's Department of Natural Resources also ordered several hundred of Skeeta's tents.

About 18 months ago, Ways, a South Florida native, returned to the lower 48 states to complete his degree in architecture at the University of Arkansas. He then relocated to Bradenton and started working for a Sarasota architecture firm while trying to rev up Skeeta's sales with military orders.

When the Army finally signed off on his contract last week, Ways took a leave from his architectural job. He is now frantically trying to secure enough polyester mesh from a mill in Pennsylvania. He has contracted with a company in Miami that makes comforters and pillows to sew the Army's tents.

Speaking on his cell phone Tuesday from Miami, Ways said he has every intention of meeting the Army's tight deadline.

"They said, "We need tents now, let's go,"' he said. "There will be a few weeks' learning curve, but they'll get them by Aug. 30."

- Kris Hundley can be reached at hundley@sptimes.com or 727 892-2996.

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